Mental Health in Law Schools
by Allison Grandish
I. Lay of the Land
There are broader discussions about the need to take mental illness seriously in the legal profession, but in the din we may lose track of our peers for whom the topic is a lived reality. Rather than critiquing our system and proposing systemic solutions, I want to speak here about what resources there for those of us who are struggling and the concomitant barriers to reaching out that we build for ourselves. We frame the struggle as requiring resilience, pointing—rightly—to the difficulty of the battle waged, but the emphasis on personal strength may belie how destructive mental illness can be and how important it is to get support. That you spiralled downward does not diminish the value you can bring to the profession, nor does it mean you lack the strength of character to be a lawyer if “better” doesn’t come easily.
Law school is not always conducive to mental health, and it can feel like students are expected to adopt, of their own volition, coping mechanisms to deal with an unforgiving environment. It is important to acknowledge the factors out of our control. There are obvious stressors. Students determined to work on Bay Street are obliged to endure long hours of work to beat a curve that doesn’t accurately reflect the effort they’ve put in. Other students may choose to pursue demanding extracurricular projects so that their resume is competitive in a brutal job market. There are systemic problems too. The stress of debt. The anxiety of struggling to find one’s place if you’re from an under-represented community. The pressure of family expectations after a legacy of success. The frustration of being part of a racialized minority and encountering insidious forms of discrimination. More broadly, coming to terms with the reality that the practice of law is not always the practice of justice. More intimately, the suspicion that we are frauds.
There are also students who would be dealing with mental illness regardless of which career they pursued. For them, the symptoms are inevitable, though there may be interplay with the stresses of law school. It may have been a pre-existing disorder that they overcame to get to law school or they’re grappling with symptoms that developed while they are here. They could be dealing with the after-effects of trauma, or other struggles unrelated to class. When we are discussing mental health, we must make room for the diverse experiences represented in our student body.
II. Miscellaneous Practical Advice
I will focus on what we would consider the “worst case scenarios.” First, you’re not as alone as you think, and you are worthy of the kindness people are willing to share with you. Those who ask how you’re doing have genuine intentions. Opening yourself up to kindness may seem intimidating, especially if you don’t trust your capacity to reciprocate. But it is worth it. Encouraging words can counterpoint the negativity in your head, or a classmate’s difficulties can remind you that what feels like an end is just an obstruction. You don’t have to roll into pub night with a fake grin; stop to smile at an acquaintance, and work from there. If you’re scared of being Too Much, you can always ask your friends if it would be helpful to set up boundaries. You can also demonstrate that you are seeking out professional help for the problems you’ve complained about. If they’ve expressed concern and a willingness to provide support, trust that their motives are genuine, that you are worthy of their attention, and that you have something to offer in return.
If you’re finding that symptoms are interfering with your studies, accommodations may help. I will refrain from explaining the bureaucratic hurdles it involves, though I will warn that it can feel Kafkaesque. You may have more time to write exams, be granted deferrals, or have access to lecture recordings the professor has not released. Osgoode services will tell you what options are available; I would rather address reservations students may have. You are not taking the easy way out. I regret that it took advice from friends, a counsellor, and a doctor before I admitted that I wasn’t functioning. I am not claiming to speak for everyone, but I hope that sharing that experience demonstrates that I can appreciate the struggles involved in acknowledging that you need support and in seeking out options. When you do so, you will be taking advantage of modifications that will help you learn more effectively. “Special treatment” enabled me to focus on the course material while having the time to seek out medical treatment for the illness I was working through. Taking ownership of the difficulty I was having and utilizing strategies that enabled me to be a productive student didn’t mean I was weak.
There are also options if you reach a crisis point. On campus, you can drop into the Personal Counselling Services office at the Bennett Centre for Student Services if your mental health crisis is overwhelming. You can also go to the hospital. I can understand the reluctance and fear with respect to that option. At some point during a semester, I sought help at the emergency room for the depression and anxiety. I wondered what it would mean to go back to class on Monday. Hospital treatment for a panic attack conflicted with what I thought law students were supposed to be. However, I can acknowledge that I was struggling with a disease—my brain wasn’t working. Regardless of how easy happiness should have been, reaching out was the right decision. I am not qualified to say the proper things to convince you to reach out if you get to that point. I will only say: please don’t let shame hold you back. Your priority is survival, not conformity with an idealized version of a law student.
III. Light at the End of the Tunnel (Not a Train)
And then there’s healing. I explained to an acquaintance that it’s like swimming up from the bottom of a pool. There’s a moment when you feel you’re not going to make it, then the surface breaks. The first few gasps might not come easily. Integrating yourself into friend groups again can be an awkward dance of apologizing and pretending nothing happened. If you’ve hurt anyone, give them time to forgive you, and you can emerge with richer and deeper friendships (some of them may not, of course; sometimes you don’t deserve it and sometimes it won’t be fair). And if you’ve lost track of what made you happy, give yourself time to reconnect with that part of yourself. There’s no a rush. Treat yourself with kindness as you learn how to be open again. The world is waiting for you.
 We can feel guilty, too; I know that it felt ridiculous to struggle with depression when I came from a loving family, had supportive friends, and had lived a pretty charmed life. I often thought, “I’m not even a typical gunner killing myself for an A. I take time for enjoyable things. I’m balanced. Where is this anxiety coming from? Where did this depression come from?” I know that, objectively, I was struggling through a medical issue; my brain just wasn’t working, and it wasn’t my fault for being weak. That was still a barrier I had to overcome, and maybe you too. Or maybe you’re being hard on yourself for not being able to “get over” a difficult experience you’ve had. Either way, it’s important to emphasize that mental illness is a health issue, not problem with who you are.
 If you need to speak with someone more qualified than a friend, it might also be helpful to speak with our wellness counselor, Ellen Schlesinger, whom you can contact by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also contact York University’s Counseling & Disability Services at 416-736-5297 for access to on-campus personal counseling or Homewood Human Solutions, at http://www.myassistplan.com/, for personal counseling to current Osgoode solutions. You can also contact the helpline Good 2 Talk at 1-866-925-5454. This section of our website provides that information. http://www.osgoode.yorku.ca/resources-and-services/student-success-wellness-counselling/
 You can apply for academic accommodations with mental health disability services at Counselling & Disability Services by calling 416-736-5350.
 You can find them at the Bennett Centre for Student Services, in room N110. You can walk in and tell the receptionist that you are experiencing a crisis and need to speak with someone right away. You can also call the office at 416-736-5297